• June 25, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Your favorite robots: When jurors at the Robot Hall of Fame decided to welcome Robby the Robot and C3PO of "Star Wars" fame to its ranks, they addressed some of the questions that Cosmic Log readers raised last year about their favorite robots. C3PO will at last join his co-star R2-D2 in the hallowed virtual halls, and Robby (best-known for his role in "The Forbidden Planet") will get the recognition readers felt he so richly deserved last year.
This year's other choices — Asimo, Astroboy and Shakey the Robot — certainly rank on some top-bot lists as well. But there are still plenty of favorite robots waiting in the wings. If the past week's e-mail is any guide, the next sci-fi androids on deck would have to be B9, the robot from "Lost in Space," and the enigmatic Gort from "The Day the Earth Stood Still." As for real-life robots, I would opt for a dual selection of Spirit and Opportunity, NASA's twin Mars rovers.
Here's a selection of the responses to our call for Hall of Fame nominations:
Mark L. DeChambeau, U.S. Navy: "My favorite robot of all time would definitely have to be the robot from the television show 'Lost in Space.' He had great capabilities, great personality and an unforgettable voice. In fact, when I first saw the more recent cinema version of that program, with William Hurt as Professor Robinson, and the robot boomed out its first line — 'Robot is online!' — goose bumps rose everywhere on me like a, well, like a flock of geese. Incidentally, I remember, as a child in the 1960s, my greatest wish at Christmas was for a robot, and I got one — a battery-operated 'Lost in Space' robot! I wish I had it today, but it received too much 'tough love' from my 4-year-old hands to last. Thanks for the opportunity to remember."
Pat "Egor" Betchik, St. Marys, Ga.: "The one from 'Lost in Space,' a 1960s show, has to be considered, as well as a 1950s homemakers' helper, often shown as the first robot. A few words need to be added for FIRST and Botball robotics competitions. I teach middle school, and they have turned some students around. ..."
Colleen Kemp, Washington: "I can't believe that in the first two years, there were none of Asimov's robots selected! One of Asimov's robots would be my choice for a nomination. I guess if I had to pick only one Asimov nominee, it would be R. Daneel Olivaw, but I've also always liked his short story 'Robbie' and the enduring relationship between Robbie and the little girl."
Charlie, Fort Wayne, Ind.: "Opportunity is absolutely deserving, no matter what lies ahead, so I see no need to wait until 'retirement.' But most importantly, if I had only one vote, it would go to Daneel, protector of the human race in Asimov's Foundation series, the greatest work of science fiction of all time. I can't believe he's not included already!"
Chris Hatton: "I believe that Maria, the robot from 'Metropolis,' makes far more sense for inclusion in the hall of fame than C3PO. Not only is she the first robot of cinema, but her influence could still be seen a half-century later when she became the primary design influence on ... C3PO. Maybe it's just a good-ol'-boy bot thing. After all, where are the girl-bots on the list?"
Jordan, Metro Detroit: "This year's selections were unworthy except for Asimo. I am totally surprised that Cog from MIT was not selected. It was the first 'intelligent' robot with pressure sensitivity and other totally advanced operations. It also has conversational capabilities that no other robot truly possesses. It is the ultimate robot and deserves recognition."
Larry Warner: "What about the three robots in the Walt Disney classic "The Black Hole." Those three robots were awesome. It has been so long since I last saw the movie I can't remember their names." [They were Old B.O.B., V.I.N.CENT and Maximilian]
William E. Kabela: "My personal favorite would be Data from 'Star Trek: The Next Generation.' But would he really be considered a 'robot'? Hmmmm."
• June 25, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Tribute to the newest astronaut: This week's mailbag contained plenty of messages about SpaceShipOne's milestone mission and its implications for future spaceflight. Many sent along congratulations to astronaut/pilot Mike Melvill, who indicated after the flight that he would leave the SpaceShipOne driving to others in the future. I'll put together a selection of the e-mails next week, but in the meantime, here's one friend's tribute to Melvill, sent just after Monday's achievement:
Greg Thomas, Noblesville, Ind.: "Mike Melvill used to live in Indiana in the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. We all knew him through our shared sport of falconry. He was one of the best to ever train and fly a raptor. He was expert with both goshawk and peregrine falcon, flying birds that flew well, looked great and were well-mannered.
Video: Wild ride "He was always something of a daredevil and thrill-seeker. He had been a paratrooper, raced motorcycles in his native South Africa, and when I knew him, besides falconry, was big into whitewater kayaking. He was utterly fearless and ran the biggest and baddest water available.
"I made the mistake once of accepting his invitation to go to West Virginia in March sometime in the '70s. We got on a river way too big for my meager talents at the time, the world-famous Gauley. I ended up getting out and having to portage my gear to the take-out point, where other experienced kayakers said I did the right thing! The next day he patiently took me to the Cherry, where I learned a lot from him in more reasonable Class 2/3 water.
"His wonderful wife, Sally, was equally brave and competent at some of his extreme sports. I'll never forget the film she shot from a commercial raft of Mike in his kayak on the Colorado River in full fury in the Grand Canyon. Absolutely unbelievable. It was such a joy to see they are still a team! His fascination with skydiving only seemed natural, as well.
"When he mastered something, though, or achieved the apex of that activity, Mike was inclined to move on to another, bigger challenge. He was curious about everything, intense in spirit, and absolutely dedicated to perfection in whatever he did.
"When he told us he was moving to California, we were all sad to see him go, but are not in the least bit surprised he ended up where he is and did what he did today. I doubt he will die in bed of old age!
"Today, several of us who knew him 30 years ago hooked up by phone to confirm what we had seen — our old friend making history!
"Well, as Paul Harvey would say, 'Now you know the rest of the story!'"
As you may recall, two sheriffs in New Mexico are seeking a state court's go-ahead to exhume the purported remains of the Old West outlaw and his mother, then subject them to DNA analysis — all in an attempt to determine conclusively that the man shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett back in 1881 was really and truly the Kid.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has lent his support to the idea of doing DNA tests. But the mayors of Fort Sumner (where the Kid's gravestone stands) and Silver City (where his mother is said to lie) are resisting the exhumations, saying that the disruption would deal an unwarranted blow to the historic Old West graveyards.
Now Fort Sumner has filed new motions to have the sheriffs' petition dismissed, and Silver City's town council sent a letter to Richardson asking him to dissociate himself from the case.
The Billy the Kid Historic Preservation Society, which opposes the exhumation, is calling on Richardson — who has been mentioned as a potential vice-presidential candidate — to distance himself from the controversy, and to reveal any taxpayer costs associated with promoting the exhumation.
"This stirred up such turmoil, the prudent thing for the governor to do would be to simply say, 'Enough is enough,'" Trish Saunders, a spokeswoman for the society, said in a news release.
Stay tuned for the next chapter in a year-old saga of the New West.
• June 25, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
• 'Nova' on PBS: 'Fireworks!'
• Wired.com: Rocket hobbyists dropping hobby
• Defense Tech: Can tethers save our satellites?
• NASA: Plan ahead for a great Perseid meteor show
• June 24, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Balloon test goes bust: The prototype for a "near-space" balloon platform that could be used for military surveillance was ripped up by winds during a test period in West Texas this month, the balloon team's leader says.
The 175-foot-long (53-meter-long) Ascender airship is undergoing repairs, and the test could be attempted again in a few weeks, said John Powell, founder of California-based JP Aerospace.
The company brought the Ascender to the Pecos County/West Texas Spaceport at Fort Stockton early this month in hopes of sending it to an altitude of 100,000 feet (30.5 kilometers), as part of a test for the U.S. Air Force Space Battlelab project. The Air Force even raised the priority of the project, apparently because the technology could be applied to operations in Iraq. But Powell's team couldn't launch the balloon unless the weather cooperated.
"We had high winds the whole time," Powell told me.
"We were bringing it out in 20- to 25-knot winds, which was extremely difficult," he recalled. "On the final day, we were going from zero to 20 knots. ... We actually had a dust devil. It wasn't a tornado, but it was bigger than a dust devil, and it rolled right over the top of the vehicle, took it right in the air and dropped it a few hundred feet away."
The winds "ripped it up pretty good," Powell said, and the balloon envelope had to be sent to Albuquerque, N.M., for repairs. The framework for the Ascender is still sitting in the hangar in Texas, he said.
"We're back here in Sacramento, wanting to know what the next step will be," Powell said.
The rips in the envelope should be fixed in a couple of days, and in a couple of weeks, the airship could be ready to fly again. In the meantime, JP Aerospace is working on other phases of its unconventional space program, and gearing up for the next round of military testing.
It's not clear when those tests might come. Efforts to contact a spokesman at Battlelab headquarters in Colorado were unsuccessful.
Powell had the impression that the next step after the Texas test would have been to send the Ascender on a "flight over the bad guys" in Iraq. "I don't know how realistic that is, but that's their desire," he said.
"It sounds like several of the [demonstration] projects are like that — they want them now," he said. Powell noted that another emerging military technology — involving remote-controlled throwable surveillance robots, or "throwbots" — was already being hustled to Baghdad for testing.
But West Texas comes first, and although the weather is unpredictable, opportunities for testing the Ascender there should be available until at least September, Powell said. He remained optimistic that the "near-space" platform — and JP Aerospace's larger vision of balloon-based spaceflight — would someday be ready for prime time.
"We've had a little bit of a setback," he said, "but man, what a ride."
• June 24, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
X Prize countdown: This week's flight by the privately developed SpaceShipOne rocket plane reached historic heights , but it didn't count toward the $10 million Ansari X Prize because it didn't carry enough weight. For an X Prize attempt, the spacecraft will have to bring along two passengers — or, more likely, their equivalent in ballast, amounting to almost 400 pounds.
Peter Diamandis, the chairman of the X Prize Foundation, says there will be several other procedural differences: Any spacecraft making a prizeworthy attempt will be required to carry a "gold box" that contains a flight video/data recorder as well as GPS equipment for verifying the altitude. The weight of the gold box will count toward the ballast requirement, Diamandis said.
Diamandis hopes an X Prize launch will offer even more for spectators than this week's Mojave launch, including giant Diamondvision displays at the site and a global webcast on the Internet.
"We're going to be investing a lot of the money we've raised into making it an exceptional educational experience," he said.
Diamandis confirmed that the X Prize teams have to notify the foundation 60 days in advance of a prizeworthy attempt. "It becomes our option to publicize [the attempt], and it's our intent to hold a news conference" quickly after notification is given, he said. So stay tuned — Diamandis says "my guess is we'll have a winner in the next two to four months."
• June 24, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Scientific stops on the World Wide Web:
• New Scientist: Tooth-growing experiments bring smiles
• The Washington Post: Gearing up for a robot rematch
• The Globe and Mail: The Soyuz bag
• The Onion: What they're saying about SpaceShipOne
On the eBay auction page, the seller admits that the idea of selling a plain old rock picked up from California's Mojave Desert at an opportune time is a little bit crazy: "I thought I should save something memorable, but the souvenir line was too long. So, I saw this rock on the taxiway, photographed it to prove it was there, and now I'm placing it on eBay to see if those wild stories about people paying lots of money for really stupid stuff is true."
My efforts to contact the seller were unsuccessful, but it looks as if the experiment is already a success. The bidding could go even higher — and that goes for the other SpaceShipOne-related items that quickly turned up on the online auction site.
For example, a garden-variety press kit, including a laminated SpaceShipOne press pass, is going for $55. More than 500 of such folders were given out to journalists covering Monday's launch — but I'm sure many of them, like mine, are no longer in, um, mint condition.
Hand-canceled SpaceShipOne postcards are also being offered on eBay. The cards were selling for $5 at the Mojave Airport souvenir stand but are now being offered for $10, with some bids going as high as $16.
Many of the authorized souvenirs are now being sold online at the Rocket Boosters Web site, but the postcards aren't among them. The Mojave Chamber of Commerce says that postcards for Monday's launch were sold out. Fresh batches will be sold on site for SpaceShipOne's Ansari X Prize launches, which are expected to come in August or September.
My favorite memento from the festivities in Mojave is a black drink coaster from SpaceDev, the company that helped produce the rocket propellant for SpaceShipOne's team at Scaled Composites. It contains hydroxy-terminated polybutadiene, the same material used in the engine's rubber-based fuel .
CollectSpace's Rob Pearlman, a specialist on space collectibles, asked SpaceShipOne team leader Burt Rutan on Sunday whether memorabilia would be flown on the rocket plane itself — but Rutan replied that there were no commercial angles to Monday's flight. "We are not using advertising or trinkets to try to get a return on investment," he said. However, Rutan said the spaceship would be festooned with logos for the Ansari X Prize flights, in accordance with the X Prize Foundation's specifications.
Pearlman was too busy covering the launch to snag a postcard — but he did manage to get his press pass autographed by SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan as well as space pilot Mike Melvill. Don't look for that item on eBay, though: Pearlman says it's going into his personal collection.
• June 23, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Scientific stops on the World Wide Web:
• Discovery.com: 64,800-year-old hair yields DNA
• Technology Review: The world's tallest building (for now)
• N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Grasping for light of distant worlds
• Alien-hunting project makes a software switch
• June 23, 2004 | 4:30 a.m. ET
Spacemen meet the stars: A day after Mike Melvill took his first ride into outer space, he took his first ride in a limousine — for a late-night chat with Jay Leno on the "Tonight" show.
The SpaceShipOne test pilot, along with designer Burt Rutan, sat beside "Spider-Man" star Tobey Maguire on NBC's set in Burbank, Calif., on Tuesday night and recapped Monday's first-ever spaceflight by a privately developed rocket ship. (NBC is a partner in the MSNBC joint venture.)
Melvill said the 5-G descent from a height of 62 miles (100 kilometers) ranked among the scariest parts of the flight:
"Tou hear this hurricane sound of wind roaring through the tailbooms of the airplane, and it's just a terrifying sound," he told Leno. "And you think, 'Oh my God, please hold together.' And I think, 'Well, Burt designed it — the damn thing better hold together.'"
The "Tonight" show also played the video of Melvill throwing up a handful of M&M candy in zero-gravity. "If you do that as a NASA employee, you probably get fired," Rutan cracked.
Rutan shed further light on why Melvill was chosen from among the pilots who have been trained to fly SpaceShipOne: "He's the best stick-and-rudder pilot I know," he said.
In response to Leno's questions about software billionaire Paul Allen's support for the project, Rutan launched into his rationale for private spaceflight — a speech that drew the biggest round of applause:
"Cost is the only reason we did this program," he said. "There have been manned space flights for a long time, but the problem is cost. For decades, the American taxpayers have spent hundreds of billions of dollars and sent it to their government. And most of those taxpayers, I think, were happy to do that, because they had the hope of flying in space.
"But right now, I don't care if you're a billionaire, you cannot buy a ticket in America. A billionaire can go to Russia and pay $20 million to get one ride. But Paul Allen, he didn't go over there and get a ride, he took that money and he sent it to Mojave, where we work, and we developed the first entire [private] manned space program for that amount of money.
"And because he did that, because he spent it that way instead of on one ride, we — all of us — are a lot closer to being able to buy that ticket. And we're damn close."
Slideshow: Historic flight During Monday's big event, Melvill and Rutan had plenty of opportunities to bring their message to space celebrities as well as the crowds of space enthusiasts. The Kern County Sheriff's Department estimated the turnout for Monday's launch at 11,000, but other estimates ranged as high as 50,000.
Among the attendees were some of Rutan's rivals for the $10 million Ansari X Prize, as well as representatives of the X Prize Foundation, such as Erik Lindbergh, the grandson of trans-Atlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh. The $25,000 Orteig Prize that Charles Lindbergh won back in 1927 served as the inspiration for the Ansari X Prize.
" Prizes are probably, in my mind, the best way to foster innovation," Erik Lindbergh told me during the launch festivities.
Other VIPs in Mojave included original "Star Trek" captain William Shatner; millionaire adventurer Richard Branson, who apparently held off making any announcement about the space tourism venture he's been considering; investment whiz Dennis Tito , who set the pace for space tourism by buying one of those $20 million rides from the Russians; and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin.
After Melvill emerged from his spaceship on Monday, Aldrin was the first astronaut to come up and offer his congratulations — a brush with space stardom that Melvill, himself a budding celebrity, marveled at hours later: "To have him come up and congratulate me and tell me I've joined the club — that was serious stuff, man."
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